Building a better mousetrap is hard. Building a better bureaucracy is harder.
What the 9/11 commission found most lacking in the U.S. intelligence community was not energy or dedication, but "imagination." Over the years, the CIA has become less like the OSS (the legendary World War II Office of Strategic Services) and more like the IRS and the INS (no explanations needed).
Consider: In 1992, terrorists attacked a Yemeni hotel quartering U.S. military personnel. In 1993, terrorists shot down a U.S. Army Black Hawk in Somalia and bombed the World Trade Center. In 1996, terrorists attacked Americans based at Khobar Towers in Saudi Arabia. In 1998, terrorists bombed two U.S. embassies in Africa. In 2000, terrorists attacked the USS Cole.
Despite these attacks - and the above is an abbreviated list - the government's intelligence experts were not overly concerned. In July 2001, Larry C. Johnson, then a State Department counterterrorism specialist, wrote in a New York Times op-ed that, where terrorism was concerned, "Americans have little to fear."
Around the same time, the head of analysis at the CIA's Counterterrorism Center wrote: "It would be a mistake to redefine counterterrorism as a task of dealing with 'catastrophic,' 'grand,' or 'super' terrorism, when in fact these labels do not represent most of the terrorism that the United States is likely to face."
Certainly, hindsight is 20/20. Even so, it is hard to understand how so many experts failed to imagine that terrorists might hijack airplanes and use them as missiles to attack buildings.
As far back as 1983, Hezbollah terrorists had used a truck bomb to kill more than 250 Americans in Beirut. Ten years later, terrorists again used a truck bomb in their first attempt to destroy the World Trade Center. Seven years later, a boat was used to deliver a bomb to the USS Cole.
Would it have required a huge imaginative leap for a terrorism expert to ask himself: "What other vehicle might a terrorist use? A motorbike? No, too small. A blimp? No, too slow. An airplane - wait a minute!" There were other clues as well. In 1994, a private plane crashed onto the South Lawn of the White House. In 1995, Abdul Hakim Murad admitted to Philippine authorities that he and Ramzi Yousef - a perpetrator of the 1993 WTC attack - had discussed flying a plane into CIA headquarters.
Yet as late as August 2001, when Zacarias Moussaoui was arrested, the briefing on him was titled "Islamic Extremist Learns to Fly." Nobody, apparently, had the imagination to wonder: "But why would an Islamic extremist want to learn to fly?" The 9/11 commission report dryly notes that, in 1996, the Gore commission on aviation security "did not mention suicide hijacking or the use of aircraft as weapons."
But on Dec. 4, 1998, President Clinton received a Presidential Daily Briefing titled "Bin Laden Preparing to Hijack U.S. Aircraft and Other Attacks."
So why, for the next three years, did it remain U.S. policy to instruct airline crews to cooperate with hijackers?
Why did nobody think to reinforce cockpit doors so pilots could prevent hijackers from taking the controls? Why was there no air marshal program? Why were pilots not trained and armed? Whey were pilots not taught to use aerial maneuvers that would immobilize anyone moving about the cabin - as Israeli pilots had long been trained to do?
The answer, evidently, is that many experts unimaginatively assumed that terrorists would predictably and conveniently continue to do what they had done in the past - plant bombs on planes or hijack aircraft and offer to exchange passengers for imprisoned comrades.
The intelligence analysts studying al Qaeda could not imagine an enemy who didn't want something - other than to kill as many "infidels" as possible.
Even today, many experts - and the politicians they advise - still cannot imagine that. They argue that the terrorists object to specific American policies (they do - but changing those policies won't satisfy them); and that we should try to "engage" terrorists and their sponsors on issues of "mutual interest" (lovely, but singing "Kumbaya" is not a counterterrorism strategy).
Tragically, we no longer need to imagine a catastrophic terrorist attack. But imagination will be necessary to defeat a ruthless and elusive enemy.
Homeland security can take us only so far. Trained terrorists will always find a target. That implies that we must wage war against the terrorists, and against those who harbor, support and assist them. (Saddam Hussein fell into that category.)
It implies, too, that terrorism never be rewarded or appeased. It must become clear that terrorism always sets back the causes it claims to champion. Anything less will encourage terrorism - and lead to more terrorist atrocities.
The members of the 9/11 commission suggest several "possible ways to institutionalize imagination." Their ideas are all practices that you might have assumed - based on Tom Clancy novels - had long been part of intelligence tradecraft.
For example, the commissioners propose creating "red teams," analysts who would imagine that they are terrorists and plot atrocities. They suggest developing "telltale indicators" for various methods of attack - say, radical Islamists enrolling in flight schools or taking jobs at airports.
"The methods of detecting and then warning of surprise attack that the U.S. government had so painstakingly developed in the decades after Pearl Harbor did not fail," the commissioners conclude. "Instead, they were not really tried. They were not employed to analyze the enemy that, as the twentieth century closed, was most likely to launch a surprise attack directly against the United States."
In other words, we already know how to build a more imaginative bureaucracy. The question now is whether we have the will to get the job done.